Daniel Woodwards is Managing Director of the UK arm of multinational snack food giant Calbee. He shares lessons that he’s learnt in his varied career and what led him to play a key part in the turnaround of one of Yorkshire’s most loved brands, Seabrook crisps.

Tell us about your early career.

“It all started with doing mathematics as a degree, which was a natural progression for me, but doesn’t suggest any career in particular. I went to a number of milk rounds, met with the main accountancy firms and just liked the sound of it.

For me the culture was important so I chose E&Y where I had a fantastic five years and left having been through a rolling standard audit process.

I loved the firm and the culture and it gave me the discipline of training in a professional firm which is just fantastic and it proved in my case to be a phenomenal grounding for the future.”

Moving out of the profession, did you have a set path that you were intent on following?

“I’d like to say I did but that’s not right.

When I left E&Y, I went to a recruitment agency, and they put a role in front of me which I interviewed for and obtained. I didn’t really think too much about the business I was going into or the culture of the organisation I was looking to join. The role was sold to me and I took it as a relatively naive newly qualified accountant.

I remember an E&Y partner who I was close to sat me down and said, “I don’t think you should leave. I don’t think this is the right role for you. We’d like you to stay.”

Cynically, I thought, “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you and I’m going anyway.”

I’d given my word to that business and I wanted to honour that, but in hindsight, it wasn’t the correct move and I only stayed for two and a half years. It didn’t suit me as an individual, but I didn’t have any proper advice at the time, I just took the role because I thought it was the next step.”

So, what came next?

“After that, it was a bit of a crossroads for me because I had a job offer from a large corporate with about fifty accountants reporting to me, or the opportunity to go and work at a small family owned food manufacturer called Zubrance. So, I had a decision to make. Should I go for the safe route?- the large corporate, which was the easy thing to do, or should I do what I actually quite fancied?, which was to jump into this loss-making business with a guy who just basically wanted some help? I took the risk and dived in.

I stayed there for six and a half years and we did some fantastic things. I worked extremely well with the owner, Rob Whitehead who I still consider to be a good friend. We had some fantastic times doing great things with both the sauce business who were supplying M & S, the confectionery side of things and acquiring a nuts business and we created what I thought was a lovely group.”

It sounds like there was a lot going on. Were there any particular highlights during that time?

“I enjoyed every minute of it but the main highlight was my relationship with Rob. He’s a great guy to work with but is the polar opposite to me in every sense and that’s what made it such good fun. He’s the ideas man and I’m the executor and that worked well.

We completed an acquisition of a business in Birmingham which I ended up running and consequently spent a lot of nights in Dudley. It was my first acquisition as well as Rob’s and it was an interesting process to go through in terms of what to do and obviously what not to do.

We ended up making a success of it but not without a few bumps in the road as well. I enjoyed the process and enjoyed my first introduction to food as well. Learning the technical side of food production gave me a really good grounding and I worked with some fantastic people too. Rob, by his own admission is great at building teams and creating a progressive culture that goes above and beyond. “

So, now you find yourself at Seabrook. What was the attraction of joining this business after what you described as a great role at Zubrance?

“It was incredibly difficult for me to make the decision to leave, but I think it was the right time for me and also the right time for Rob and we were able to find someone to take over from me who did a great job. I was delighted about that.

Seabrook is a brand that I grew up with and loved as a child and I still love crisps, so when they came knocking it was an easy decision. I was aware it was a heritage brand and a phenomenal product, but the business appeared to have been mismanaged for a number of years and had a fair few issues.

I love the turnaround aspect of businesses and was able to come in as part of a brand new management team with a broad remit to fix the business and that really appealed to me.

I came in as FD to begin with, but, very quickly, we found there were other areas I could get involved with and so I took over the operations relatively early. It was just a once in a lifetime opportunity to get involved in a business which is famous in its heartland. It was special to me personally and loved by many people so it was too good an opportunity to turn down. “

It’s been quite a journey. Could you, perhaps, tell us about the challenges you’ve faced that have led to where you are today?

“We had two parallel challenges when I joined: we had a brand that was unloved and was also underinvested. The solution was twofold, because we had a CEO with a history in brand development who started at the same time as me, he took on that role which left me to deal with the opposite area of the business which was operations and structure.

This was going to be a big turnaround so I was able to get stuck in, essentially through my finance background which allows the analysis that was essential in the role. Very quickly, I was able to look at the MI and get that whipped into shape and that was the gateway to then see what needed to be done within the business.

One of these was restructuring the overhead base, which wasn’t too difficult, because I’d come from an own-label background. Even though Seabrooks is a branded business, in terms of the ratios and the gross margins, etc, it’s very similar to an own- label type structure.

The biggest challenge was within the operations. In my opinion, the factory itself certainly hadn’t been loved for quite a while and had never been subject to any kind of technical audit and that showed in the standards we were operating to. It was my first real operations role where I had ultimate responsibility, which is very different from working in partnership with an operations director as a finance director. All the responsibility was mine and I had to set the tone and set the strategy and at that point we had a burning platform.

We had to make very quick and bold decisions to ensure that this business survived. That suited me in some respects, because I was able to come in and make swift, unilateral decisions. We had to assess the situation, set the strategy, execute and ensure everyone was allied to a single vision that we were all prepared to follow. So, the leadership style we had to implement initially was very different to where we are today, but it was required to ensure the business was going to continue, because we weren’t too far away from closing the doors permanently.

Thankfully, I was able to convince the technical manager who’d worked with me in the sauce business to come and join and that was a huge step, in terms of increasing operational standards and for me personally to have an ally and someone who understood what I was trying to achieve.

The operational side of things is now hugely valued and we have phenomenal teams, a blend of both new and old. We’ve managed to keep some of those who were here when I joined, and they’ve done a great job of giving us the history and making sure we don’t go too far off track, but we’ve also brought in some new blood that have got perhaps a slightly different view of the world and it’s been a really nice opportunity to bring two sides together. “

Interestingly, you mentioned your leadership style when you joined the business wasn’t your natural or preferred style. Tell us a bit more about that.

” I think your leadership style depends on the situation. We were in deep discussions with the bank when I joined and that was a difficult time because we had quite a significant level of debt. We were loss-making and they were starting to lose patience at that point so we needed to make quick decisions and sometimes that can’t be made by consensus. It was important as well however to make sure the team were behind us, so explaining the logic of what we were doing was important, but equally, in explaining the logic, we also had to explain why we were doing it in the way that we were doing it.

Now we are in a much more stable business and we can make decisions in a very different way, so we are much more collaborative as well as a stronger and more experienced team, so now are able to draw on that experience to make the right decisions.”

You’ve worked for different Chief Executives. Can you tell us what it’s like to work for a CEO who is an entrepreneur and how that relationship works?

“I’ve worked with a couple, so I’ve been used to dealing with entrepreneurs who have a huge amount of history and legacy, because they were family-owned businesses and their style has been relatively similar.

Also, I’ve been lucky in that entrepreneurs tend to be good at idea generation, but they often need someone standing next to them to execute those ideas. You also need to be strong enough to tell them when those ideas are perhaps not the most sensible thing that we might do. I feel I have some level of entrepreneurialism within me and therefore I like to think that I can understand their point of view, but equally, my analysis, logic and hopefully fairness comes through so that I can explain to them that this is perhaps not their best idea and why that is.

I think they trusted me to execute their better ideas and to execute them well. That builds trust over time, and that trust is absolutely critical. I hope they saw me as someone who has integrity and works in an ethical way, treating their business like my own.”

Looking back over your career to date, what do you think has been the biggest challenge so far?

“I think probably the biggest challenge was when we were planning to exit Seabrooks.

We expected at that point to sell to trade. We didn’t really have any expectation that we would sell to private equity, but it became clear through the process that that was a very distinct possibility. We therefore needed a management plan to grow EBITDA and we had to develop that.

Suddenly I had to put in an automation plan, so I designed a plan for private equity and it got baked into the numbers, which was to spend £3 million on an automation play. I’d never done anything like that before but had to back myself.

Secondary to that, obviously going into private equity, there was the rollover element, so, not only did I have to deliver this plan, I had my own personal stake in delivery, which added a fair amount of pressure. That was, in some respects, the hardest thing because it was the most I’d been out of my comfort zone.

I was very lucky to find an excellent project manager who helped me through that process and we managed to deliver on time and in full and deliver the earnings as prescribed to private equity, overall it was a very successful installation. “

Is there a piece of advice that you’ve carried through your career?

“The biggest thing for me is that I’ve always thought that you need to work hard and have the best interests of the business at heart and don’t worry too much about anything else. I think people can get obsessed by their career; where they’re going, the title they’ve got, how much they’re earning and I’ve never worried about any of that. I’ve always wanted to work in interesting businesses with good people and on good projects and thought the rest will take care of itself.

I was asked to do a talk once on the route to a six figure salary and I just thought it was absolutely everything I didn’t believe in. I think that if you work hard and work in the best interests of the business, a good boss and a good business will deliver for you and will reciprocate. “

You’ve recruited quite a few people over the years. What sort of attributes have you looked for in a prospective employee?

“It always comes down to ethics, hard work and cultural fit. I’ve always wanted people who really want to work for the business, and again, put the business first. In an SME I think discretionary effort is everything. I don’t have the structures and budgets of some of our competitors. They will have a breadth of team that is just not available to me so I need people who aren’t too precious; who are willing to span across different areas and are willing to work harder and put in discretionary effort and that comes through a state of mind. As long as they have the right attitude to work, the rest we can deliver.”

So what’s next for you, Daniel?

“Seabrook have been bought by a $2.3bn turnover company called Calbee which is a phenomenal business and I’ve learned a lot about them over the last two months. Hopefully buying Seabrook has given a fantastic platform for Calbee to invest further into the UK., so we’re currently in the process of understanding the opportunities of being aligned with a large corporate, having come out of the private equity world. LDC did a fantastic job for us, but it allows us now to look at the business rather differently, seeing where the new opportunities take us.

The first chapter for Seabrook was turnaround for the family and the sale. The second chapter was delivery for LDC and the third chapter is just beginning, so we’ll see where that takes us.”